Film Review: Tragedy Girls

'Tragedy Girls' hits a sweet spot between teen slasher-movie horror and spiky satire.
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Best friends McKayla (Alexandra Shipp) and Sadie (Brianna Hildebrand), high-school seniors, are beautiful, popular cheerleaders—and gleeful, studied sociopaths. They’re meaner than any Mean Girls, more murderously cunning than all the Heathers. And, as they’re eager to tell any and all potential fans, you can follow them on social media, @tragedygirls, where they post breezy video reports about all the murders recently plaguing their Midwestern small town.

Driven more by thirst for online hits and likes than any genuine human interest, the BFFs decide to boost their social-media traffic by helping the killer at large step up his or her game, sowing panic and hysteria at their school and in their town. In effect, the Tragedy Girls choose fearmongering as a path to fame and glory, which hardly seems as radical or incendiary a political statement as it used to be, even when the firebrand fanning those flames is a fresh-faced teen.

So, while director Tyler MacIntyre, working from a script co-written by Chris Lee Hill, carves out a bloody-smart teen horror plot, the satire tends to land with blunt force. Perhaps piercing the current cultural and political moment—which, in its violence and turmoil, can seem like a fantasy or nightmare beyond all satire—takes humor sharper than this. Certainly, the humor could get no darker. Tragedy Girls honors its high-school-can-be-hell pedigree—well-established by DePalma’s Carrie, the aforementioned teen comedies, and Jawbreaker, of course—and raises the ante an arm and a leg, with copious blood and slasher-style violence.

Most of the gore is played for laughs rather than genuine scares, but MacIntyre does craft several sequences that manage to be both suspenseful and wickedly funny. Shipp and Hildebrand—fellow film mutants, as X-Men’s Storm and Deadpool’s Negasonic Teenage Warhead, respectively—navigate the film’s tricky mix of tones and genres smoothly, if not spectacularly. They get the best zingers, while nearly every other character in McKayla and Sadie’s orbit ends up the butt of the joke, or dead, or both. Spreading more of that snark around the film’s game ensemble—including Craig Robinson, Nicky Whelan, Jack Quaid, and Savannah Jayde, in a juicy turn as the Tragedy Girls’ nemesis, Syl—might have lifted the whole ship. Josh Hutcherson works wonders with his brief bit as McKayla’s ex, Toby, who has way more followers online, damn him.

Led by Hill and MacIntyre’s script (based on an original screenplay by Justin Olson), the film captures current trends in tech and lingo, and adds its own winning touches, like kitschy references to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Italian giallo master Dario Argento, or the photo of Jeffrey Dahmer that hangs in Sadie’s locker like a Tiger Beat pinup. “Real journalism is based in facts, not in hashtags,” claims the local TV reporter (Marycarmen Lopez), who rarely has all her facts straight. The performances are fun, even when the action gets gruesome, and a few gags are downright hilarious, yet the high-school comedy targets remain the same as they ever were—vapid teens and martinet cheer captains, oblivious parents, vulturous media and rampant consumerism.

Still, McKayla and Sadie and Tragedy Girls distinguish themselves with a full-on commitment to the horrors lying behind the so-called “dark side of social media.” The film zigzags its way home, not unpredictably, as some of the girls’ plans go awry, and some victims tend not to die too easily. However, the one truly major twist in the plot might be the darkest, as not every villain gets their just rewards or punishment in the end. As the film asserts, and history demonstrates, occasionally scoundrels do prosper.

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